Now UN Diplomats Fight and Make Peace By Twitter May08

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Now UN Diplomats Fight and Make Peace By Twitter

Susan Rice (centre) chats with Konstantin K. Dolgov (left), Deputy Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN; Mark Lyall Grant (second from right), Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the UN at a Security Council Meeting (Photo Credit: UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras)

Twitter fever has gone from the masses to Hollywood. Now global diplomats at the UN are the latest to be hit by the bug, creating new ways to cooperate–or jab each other.

New media tools were for a long time used sparingly by foreign missions, usually to distribute official statements. But as more delegates open their own twitter accounts, their tweets have gone from bland to personal, and sometimes to political fire and passion.

The crisis in Syria especially has taken twitter use to a whole new level. Since the crisis began a year ago, the Security Council has struggled to reach a unanimous decision on how to resolve the unrest in the Middle Eastern country. A tug of war that began behind closed doors at the Council moved out to the twittersphere. A war of tweets broke out among opposing diplomats furiously pounding on their blackberries and smart phones during the closed sessions. Their aim: to win over the public and exert pressure on their opponents.

During a tough meeting in February, for example, US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice tweeted from inside the UN Security Council chamber: “Disgusted that Russia and China prevented the #UN Security Council from fulfilling its sole purpose.”  She added: “Russia and China veto on #Syria is one, I think, they’ll come to regret. Esp. when ultimately they face a new democratic Syria. Short-sighted.”

Rice also did some “naming and shaming” by re-tweeting the countries that had voted against a resolution to stop the violence in Syria.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov fired a response two days later via his office’s official twitter account: “S. Lavrov: Certain Western States are trying to obscure the developments with hysterical statements on Russia’s veto of the Syria resolution.”  He also questioned the objectivity of some member states in his following tweet: “Lavrov: The [UN Security Council] UNSC’s attempt to force the Syrian regime to stop the violence without the same for the armed groups shows support for one side.”

The tweets and press statements multiplied, getting more acrimonious as the death toll rose in Syria. The very personal and public fight between the US and Russia unfolded to the surprise and delight of foreign correspondents covering the Syrian conflict.

In the past, Security Council meetings were always very “cloak and dagger”. Journalists would hover around the UN corridors waiting for bribes of information from the delegates to try and piece together exactly what was happening. Many would only get the full picture once the debate was over and a press briefing was held. But now, it seems the whole world has a front row seat to how this very secretive organ works. Western delegates have been tweeting while inside the chambers, giving a minute to minute update of events.

Social media is changing how diplomatic bureaucracies work, says John Burgess, a former US Foreign Service Officer with over 40 years experience of living in Muslim countries. Back in the day, he says, it would take months for an Ambassador to receive instruction from his government to reply to queries. Technology has changed that.

“Instead of being able to take days or weeks to respond to a foreign event, the bureaucracies must act at least as quickly as the 24/7 media that both report and frame those events,” he said.  “Diplomatic opposition is also acting or reacting quickly”.

Philip Seib, a professor of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California, echoes this view. In his book, Real-Time Diplomacy, Politics and Power in the Social Media Era, Seib credits the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East for illustrating how conventional diplomacy has become an “anachronism” in this high-speed, media-centric world.

“The cushion of time that enabled policymakers to judiciously gather information and weigh alternatives is gone”, he notes.

His book analyzes the relationship between diplomacy and new media, likening it to an “unhappy marriage”. He and many foreign policy experts say that social media is likely to complicate diplomatic efforts.

The failure of diplomacy to end the Syrian conflict seems to reinforce this view. A review of the “blame-game” that has been unfolding on the twittersphere between the United States and its allies,  United Kingdom and France, against Russia and China finds that fiery messages accompanied the deadlock at the UN Security Council, adding to the poisoned atmosphere.  It is not until March 21 that the so-called “big players” on the council agreed to put their difference aside and rally behind the UN-Arab League joint peace mission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Ambassador Susan Rice tweeted at the time:  “While this is a modest step, it is indeed a step forward for the #UNSC towards a more unified approach to the crisis in #Syria.”

How to resolve the war is still a point of contention for the major players sitting on the council. The Western nations are pushing for a quick UN resolution on Syria and the likely ouster of President Bashar Al-Assad. Russia and China prefer a negotiated settlement instead of a forced regime change. But judging by their latest tweets, there seems to be a common ground emerging: securing a ceasefire to end the bloodshed. Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov told reporters it was an “absolute must”.

And so the tweets continued, though with an edge:

@MFA_Russia: On the latest acts of terror in #Syria: the international community must prevent the disruption of Kofi #Annan’s plan.

@Ambassador Rice: Our patience is exhausted. Continuation of bloodshed is not only unacceptable but reprehensible. #Syria.

Jocelyne Sambira is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@Sambira)